Monday, November 8, 2010

The invention of an ancient and honorable tradition.

In the middle 60’s in Japan some nuns located at the Kaizenji Monastery in Nagoya Japan  , under the direction of their new Abbess Yoshida Roshi, decided to sew their own robes. This practice spread to a few other temples in Japan being over seen by female priests and nuns. This was and never has been a requirement supported by the Soto Shu (Soto Zen School) in Japan; in fact they have their own (official) supplier of their robes and garments.

In 1970 Abbess Yoshida Roshi visited the San Francisco Zen center and while there suggested to Zenkei Blanche Hartman that the center should adopt the so called Nyoho-e, or “clothing made according to the Dharma.” Tradition that she and some other abbesses in Japan had more or less recently invented. Yoshida Roshi suggested that one of the centers members visit a Japanese nun involved in creating this practice to learn to sew. So at least 3 of the centers female members went to Japan to learn sewing from the nun’s.

Sewing practice as a (tradition) however would have to wait for Suzuki Roshi’s death. Suzuki never endorsed the practice as a requirement in Zen. Once Zenkei Blanche Hartman (a nice Jewish lady born in Birmingham Alabama) became abbess of the center the new “ancient” tradition was officially born. The founders  of this tradition in the Untied States were Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Joyce Browning, Virginia Baker, Kasai Joshin and Pat Herroshoff. The practice was concurrently accepted by and endorsed by Shohaku Okumura, whom I am willing to bet never sewed a robe in his life up until that time. Doctrinally this practice has been supported by two essays in the Shobogenzo in which Dogen praises the importance of and symbolic nature of the Zen monks robes. Neither essay mentions sewing.  It has now become popular with many western Zen Centers and/or centers run by American teachers in Japan.. It is however still not endorsed by the Japanese Sotoshu.

So there you have the complete history (more or less) of the sewing linage in Zen.


  1. ...well... there's a good point there, but 'complete history'?

    I think you'd have to go back and explore the many examples of hand-sewn robes that still exist in Japan including those from recent-ish Masters like Kodo Sawaki and his associates. The robe has gone through many changes it seems:

    (click on 'images from the exibit')

    Master Sawaki transmitted a sewing method and sewed his own kesa, and insisted that others do likewise. From where he got this value I do not know.

    "The point [of the stitch] should be as small as possible, but it is not necessary that it become a decoration. What is important is that you sew it yourself, whether it's good or bad is not the issue" -- Kodo Sawaki



  2. ... of course, Sawaki was somewhat of a rebel and was never too concerned with what Sotoshu said or did (thankfully). He was into zazen and the rigouorous and sincere practice of it, not transmitting the funeral business from father to son.



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